Stanford's Drew Endy is an engineer's biologist. He doesn't like to wonder at the messy world of evolved systems; he likes to create new tools for building organisms that do stuff for humans.
His presentations, like the one he delivered Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, work the same way. Endy has a knack for breaking down the dizzying array of work being done learning how to encode and decode DNA into digestible, discrete components.
It's a welcome service given that the Ideas Festival has dedicated an entire set of sessions to what it's calling "The Century of Biology." That's the notion that humans' increasing understanding and manipulation of living systems will have the same massive impact on the 21st century that advances in thermodynamics and physics (think: electricity, engines, computers, rockets) had in the 20th.
If physics seems tough enough to understand, biological complexity is truly mindboggling, and the scientific literature surrounding biotech reflects that. Pop a basic concept like "DNA recombination" into Google Scholar, and you get more than 20,000 results. Even Google's algorithms can't tell you which papers might be the most important nodes in the network.
And that's why one slide in Endy's presentation was particularly good for those who want to understand the truly foundational work in the field. It showed the three papers Endy says are the key touchpoints for what we now know as biotechnology. Each one showed that scientists had gained new fundamental knowledge about how to manipulate the language of life. Here they are:
1973: "Construction of biologically functional bacterial plasmids in vitro" by Cohen et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This was the paper that marked the beginning of the age of genetic engineering. Scientists were able to insert DNA into a living organism. The paper eventually led to the founding of, Genentech, Endy said.
1985: "Cloning and expression of the human erythropoietin gene" by Lin et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here, researchers showed that they could use genetic engineering to produce human proteins, the biological machines that do work within the body. In this particular case, a protein needed by anemia patients was produced in hamster ovary cells. The paper represents the foundational work that made the company, Amgen.
It should be noted that Endy thinks this work and that of field pioneer Craig Venter -- as good as it is -- all suffers from a lack of the engineering that defines other technological fields. "The genetic engineering of these
projects has remained expert-driven artwork," Endy said. Put another way, biology as a field has focused too much on medical applications and not enough on tools. "We're always trying to solve problems instead of getting better at solving
So, while we can synthesize DNA, there is no way to program organisms the way you can a computer. That is to say, there are no compilers to translate human desires into biological functions. And that's the next step, Endy thinks, in delivering on the promise of biotechnology. We need a true programming language (like Java) for living cells.
If you could program cells without having to know biochemistry in depth, one can imagine you might unleash the talents of a generation of computer programmers and entrepreneurs. That collective effort could deliver the innovation that observers like Harvard's Niall Ferguson say the United States needs to resurrect its economy.
Then we'd have a whole new set of challenges to face. Or as the ever-pithy founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, put it after Endy's talk, "The century of biology is also the century of bioethics."
By replacing Mike Flynn with H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump added one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced to his team.
Let me be as clear as I can be: The president’s selection of H.R. McMaster to be his new national security advisor is unambiguously good news. The United States, and the world, are safer for his decision.
McMaster is one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced. That sounds like hyperbole but isn’t. In the Gulf War, he led an armored cavalry troop. At the Battle of 73 Easting—a battle much studied since—his 12 tanks destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 armored personnel carriers, and 30 trucks. In 23 minutes.
In the next Iraq war, he led a brigade in 2005 and was among the first U.S. commanders to think differently about the conflict and employ counterinsurgency tactics to pacify Tal Afar—one of the most wickedly complex cities in Iraq. He excelled at two different echelons of command in two very different wars.
Joe Moran’s book Shrinking Violets is a sweeping history that doubles as a (quiet) defense of timidity.
The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”
Trump’s branding of the press as an "enemy" seems less an attempt to influence coverage than an invitation to repression and even violence.
At the dawn of a turbulent era in American history, an inexperienced but media-savvy President, early in his first term, was obsessing about negative press.
John F. Kennedy, who had grown accustomed to compliant coverage, was running up against the limits of his power to control the public narrative when neither the world nor the press would read from his script. Halfway around the globe, a small band of foreign correspondents were undercutting the White House with stories that showed the United States becoming more deeply involved (and less successfully) than the government acknowledged in what would become the Vietnam War.
Relations between the Saigon press corps and the United States Embassy had deteriorated into "a mutual standoff of cold fury and hot shouts––Liar! Traitor! Scoundrel! Fool!––with an American foreign policy teetering precariously in the void between," wrote William Prochnau in Once Upon a Distant War, an under-appreciated account of fraught relations between the government and the press.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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Experts on Turkish politics say the use of that term misunderstands what it means in Turkey—and the ways that such allegations can be used to enable political repression.
Over the last week, the idea of a “deep state” in the United States has become a hot concept in American politics. The idea is not new, but a combination of leaks about President Trump and speculation that bureaucrats might try to slow-walk or undermine his agenda have given it fresh currency. A story in Friday’s New York Times, for example, reports, “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America.”
It’s an idea that I touched on in discussing the leaks. While there are various examples of activity that has been labeled as originating from a “deep state,” from Latin America to Egypt, the most prominent example is Turkey, where state institutions contain a core of diehard adherents to the secular nationalism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is increasingly being eroded by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has seen a series of coups, stretching back to 1960, as well as other activity attributed to a deep state.
When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.
Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.
I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.
“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.
This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.
So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like” Trump’s approach to national security, says a former counterterrorism adviser to three presidents.
Updated on February 20 at 4:40 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump has made national security a centerpiece of his agenda, justifying policies ranging from a travel ban to close relations with Russia. But the United States is now more vulnerable to attack than it was before Trump took office, according to the man who served as George W. Bush’s crisis manager on 9/11.
“In terms of a major terrorist attack in the United States or on U.S. facilities, I think we’re significantly less ready than we were on January 19,” said Richard Clarke, who served on the National Security Council in the George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations. “I think our readiness is extremely low and dangerously low. Certainly [government] agencies at a professional level will respond [to an attack], but having a coordinated interagency response is unlikely given the current cast of characters [in the administration] and their experience.”
Lip service to the crucial function of the Fourth Estate is not enough to sustain it.
It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg set out to dismantle the news business when he founded Facebook 13 years ago. Yet news organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse.
A sprawling new manifesto by Zuckerberg, published to Facebook on Thursday, should set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.
Facebook’s existing threat to journalism is well established. It is, at its core, about the flow of the advertising dollars that news organizations once counted on. In this way, Facebook’s role is a continuation of what began in 1995, when Craigslist was founded. Its founder, Craig Newmark, didn’t actively aim to decimate newspapers, but Craigslist still eviscerated a crucial revenue stream for print when people stopped buying newspaper classifieds ads.
Humans have been living and working with horses for more than 5,000 years, since the first domesticated equines had their teeth worn down by primitive bridles in northern Kazakhstan. Hands could not have built modern civilization without the help of hooves—to haul ploughs, pull carriages, march soldiers into battle, and carry messages of love and war across hundreds of otherwise-insurmountable miles.
An unlikely pairing of wily predator and one-ton prey, humans and horses have managed to successfully communicate across the species barrier because we share a language: emotion. Experienced riders and trainers can learn to read the subtle moods of individual horses according to wisdom passed down from one horseman to the next, but also from years of trial-and-error. I suffered many bruised toes and nipped fingers before I could detect a curious swivel of the ears, irritated flick of the tail, or concerned crinkle above a long-lashed eye.